New Film Saint Frances Depicts Abortion in a New Light

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Saint Frances Kelly O’Sullivan Interview
Saint Frances, 2019(Film still)

Kelly O’Sullivan, the writer and star of Saint Frances, draws on her own experience to debunk Hollywood stereotypes around abortion and motherhood

One of the most hyped releases from last year’s SXSW Film Festival, Saint Frances centres on Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan), a lapsed Catholic and single 34-year-old. She’s not quite sure what she wants to do with her life, and things don’t really become any clearer when she takes a job as a nanny for a well-heeled lesbian couple. At first, with Bridget’s lack of ambition and allergy to romantic commitment, it feels like we’re warming up for yet another “female slacker” movie, but this even-handed drama isn’t so quick to put its characters in boxes. Rather, its empathetic spirit casts a non-judgemental eye over topics like postpartum depression, queer parenting, mixed-race relationships and, significantly, abortion. 

Dubbed an “abortion comedy” by some film critics, the protagonist’s decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy has dominated much of the coverage of Saint Frances in the press. Speaking over the phone to O’Sullivan – who also wrote the film’s script, drawing from her own experience – she makes it clear that Saint Frances is far from a single-issue film. “One of the first things that happens to Bridget is that she gets an abortion, but we were very intentional about the fact that it doesn’t sum up the scope of this character’s experience,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s not just an ‘abortion movie’; it’s also a postpartum movie, a mother-daughter movie and a family drama.”

It feels like an obvious point to be making, but worth repeating: it’s refreshing to see a film where a terminated pregnancy is one event of many, rather than a character’s be-all and end-all. For O’Sullivan, who herself had an abortion in her early thirties, this was one of the main missions of the film. “In TV and film, when abortion is broached it feels like it’s going to be the capital-P plotline, so it was important for us to normalise the experience and say that it doesnt have to define someone’s life,” she explains, before adding: “I certainly don’t feel defined by my abortion as a person.” Saint Frances’ casualness here not only speaks to the fact that abortion should universally be considered an essential medical procedure, but takes a broad swipe at the culture of shame, fear and guilt that traditional media depictions tend to reinforce.

That’s not to say that O’Sullivan would consider her experience to be the only one. “Whether your abortion is a blip on your radar or whether it’s a big deal for you, that’s the right way to be handing it,” she quickly clarifies. “We just need to respect that it’s just going to be different for everyone.” Given the many different ways that abortion can impact someone’s life, O’Sullivan is excited about the recent proliferation of films dealing with the subject matter in different ways – especially Sundance hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, to which Saint Frances has often been compared.It’s great that we get to be paired with a story like Never Rarely Sometimes Always that, yes, is about getting an abortion but which is also really different,” she admits. “It’s important not to be monolithic in the way that these stories are told.”

What stands out about Saint Frances in comparison to its peers, though, is a candour about the physical after effects of abortion, as well as its striking lack of shyness around menstruation. As O’Sullivan has jokingly written, it could be well be called ‘There Will Be Blood 2’. One of the first scenes grapples with the mess of period sex and, at one point, Bridget shows casual boyfriend Jace (Max Lipchitz) – and, by proxy, the audience – a “rat turd”-like blood clot she has passed as a result of her procedure. Although the scene might cause physical recoil for the cis men who are only given an airbrushed depiction of womb-having people’s bodies, O’Sullivan sees it as overwhelmingly necessary. “When I had my abortion I really did bleed on and off for three months and I wanted to demystify that experience for people,” she explains. “If we were to make the decision of not having that very real, physical experience on screen then we would be adding to the shame and the taboo. We just wanted to say ‘this is normal and cis men who see this movie should know it is as well’.”

Similarly, she also thought it important to broaden the perception upheld by film and media – from Juno to countless high school dramas – that unwanted pregnancy solely concerns teens. Citing a statistic that most people getting abortions in the US already have one or more children, O’Sullivan explains that she felt a duty to be realistic about who, exactly, is undergoing these procedures. “When I actually went to Planned Parenthood, I was astonished by the wide breadth of age and just the different kinds of people in that waiting room,” she says. “We just don’t hear about the fact that there are people who are older and saying ‘no, I want to exercise this choice and not have a child right now, or not have another child right now’.”

By gently moving away from the notion that abortions are limited to a specific demographic – though the film does little to shake the prevailingly white and middle-class nature of most representations of abortion – Saint Frances reminds us that experiences with pregnancy or parenthood are rarely as linear we’re commonly led to believe. Through Bridget’s experience as a nanny and the connection she eventually grows with six-year-old charge Frances (the film’s titular “saint”, played by Ramona Edith Williams) we’re also prompted to reconsider the tired notion that everyone with a womb should actively want to become a parent. At the beginning of Saint Frances Bridget disdains children and, while Frances may have changed her mind about this by the film’s conclusion, she remains ambivalent to the idea of having a child of her own. 

“It was really important that we show that Bridget is able to have this very loving, meaningful relationship with a child and still end the movie not sure whether she wants to be a mother herself,” O’Sullivan says. “The trap of the Hollywood version of this movie would be ‘oh Bridget learns through this relationship that she now wants to have kids’ and we really wanted to reject that. At the end of the day, you can absolutely love a child and still not be sure if you want to have one in your own life.”

Saint Frances is out in cinemas on July 24, 2020.